God, Doctor, and Patient: The Uncomfortable Hospital Triad

I would never pray with a patient at the bedside. What doctor has time to talk about God? And who knows whether a patient will find the suggestion of prayer offensive, helpful, or rapport-building? Most of us doctors, when we think about prayer at all, keep it as far from our work as possible. I am an observant Jew, yarmulke wearing and Sabbath observing, and I pray three times a day. But never would I mention to my colleagues a word about my daily spiritual practice. We are practitioners of our own esoteric art, which we like to pretend is uncontaminated by outside influence, and our white coats are not cassocks. Even when an appreciation of religion might be of some use, we make an extra effort to keep it at a distance. When patients are about to die, or when our care is serving only to prolong suffering, we delegate the hard questions to highly trained ethicists sharing our worldview. When there's nothing left but to commend a patient's soul to its maker, we murmur something about "medical futility."

Thus the small but growing scientific literature linking prayer to health is discussed by nobody in my circles. It's in the same category as "alternative" medicine (acupuncture, Chinese therapies, ayurvedic medicine, and the like) or, for that matter, most of psychology - areas worth dabbling in but never imagined by orthodox practitioners as primary to the profession. Once organic causes have been thoroughly "worked up" (through appropriate technologies and laboratory tests), then we are free to speculate about the psychological and spiritual realms, usually with a cocked eyebrow or an eye on the clock.

What would it mean for prayer to help the sick? It's a question linked to others great philosophers have plumbed and foundered on: the existence of evil, God's relationship to prayer, the necessity of any belief in God at all when one prays. One might think that the scientific literature shouldn't find the problem as difficult as the philosophers - just find an objective measure of "prayer" and "help." But objective measures of prayer are precisely what are lacking, as psychologists Kevin Masters and Glen Spielmans explained in a review published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2007: what the field needs are "experimental studies based on conceptual models that include precise operationally defined constructs [and] longitudinal investigations with proper measure of control variables." In other words, we're back to the same issues: what is prayer? And how do we tell what is the effect of prayer, and not merely the nonspecific warmth of human companionship?

God is most relevant to me at work for different reasons. I'm a medical resident in his final year whose routine usually involves others' tragedy. Religion in my practice is usually evident only as a wedge between what I want and what patients - and, more often, patients' families - want. Enveloped by a medical culture which is difficult to step outside, I often catch myself assuming with an unquestioning certainty exactly what should happen in a given case: this person over here is worth treating (from a "medical" perspective - that is, from the perspective of my guild), there is progress to be made here, and we should try to convince the patient and family of this; or, conversely, there is "nothing to treat here," and any protestations to the contrary are due to delusion, illusion, or "cultural differences," a common euphemism which includes religion. Often it happens that religious patients and their families want more care than we doctors want. This is frustrating for me as a religious person: what's the point of all the spiritualism if it only blocks lines of communication between doctor and patient?

As in the case of prayer and health, the issue of end-of-life care for religious patients (and their families) can be illuminated through empirical research where otherwise we might get lost in philosophical byways. In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Holly Prigerson at the Harvard Medical School Center for Palliative Care, together with her colleagues, published a rigorous study of patients who use religious faith to cope with a diagnosis of advanced cancer. Even after controlling for other variables, these patients with "positive religious coping" request and receive more intensive life-prolonging care at the end of life.

In an on-line interview, the authors declined to make recommendations to clinicians based on this conclusion. In the article, however, they observe "because aggressive end-of-life cancer care has been associated with poor quality of death and caregiver bereavement adjustment, intensive end-of-life care might represent a negative outcome for religious copers." This would certainlly justify doctors' bewilderment when dealing with religiously intransigent families. Such families are arguing their loved ones into more days in the ICU and a death entangled in wires and tubes.
Thinking it about it in another way, though - trying as hard as I can to think like the spiritual person I occasionally manage to be outside of work - a scrabbling after every scrap of life, even as it seems to slip inexorably away, is a perfectly religious path. For many religious people, sick or well, the question is not "Does prayer help?" but "How can I manage to pray?" Prayer has no point; its existence is enough. Similarly, I would not be surprised if many religious families viewed the question of "negative outcomes" as just another barrier thrown up to the achievement of transcendence. Life is life. Clinging on to it has no point; the clinging is enough. These days our art of medicine is always accompanied by debates about the evidence, what it is and how one introduces it into practice. While God and God's adherents frustrate me no end while I am trying to get work done in the hospital, I am vivified by those whose attachment to life is circumscribed by something other than evidence.


  1. Anonymous2:31 PM

    I am an atheist and agree with you regarding keeping god out of the picture. I also feel sorry for the patients who suffer because the family is "religious".

  2. I really enjoyed the thoughtfulness of this piece.

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